How to Walk Your Adult Dog
A few months ago, I wrote a blog on how to walk your puppy. The focus was on creating a quality experience rather than going on a route march. I often find myself having similar conversations with adult dog owners, so here is the adult dog version.
-As with puppies the walk starts at home. It starts with how the equipment goes on the dog. If when you get the harness out, the dog runs and hides under the table, this usually means the dog is not entirely comfortable with the process of the harness going on. This raises stress levels and trigger stacks (see trigger stacking blog) the dog before the dog has even left the house. You may find your dog is then reluctant to walk or shuts down showing suppressed behaviours, creeping around in a sheepish fashion. If this happens your dog is not behaving better, it is very worried about the item attached to its body and is scared to move normally. Account for an extra 5 minutes before you go for a walk, to put the harness and lead on, using treats in a low-pressure way. Practice putting the harness on and off using treats at other times, when there is not the pressure of needing to go for a walk. If this is a big issue get a trainer over for a quick session to assess and demonstrate, because this can have a bearing on your dogs behaviour on a walk.
-Once the harness is on, a lot of people make the mistake of giving in to the dogs excitement and getting out of the door as quickly as possible, because the dog is so irate with glee. Unfortunately, this can set the entire tone for the walk. Those of you who have dogs that pull, could find the dog pulling from second 1 before you have even got off your driveway. Instead of bursting out the door as quickly as possible, spend another 5 minutes doing sniffer games inside the hallway of your house and just outside the front door. Don't be in a hurry to get off your front garden. Sprinkle treats and encourage your dog to "find it". Sniffing calms the dog down and fosters an exploratory mindset which can start the walk in a much lower key way. Further to this, bursting out of the house in such an aroused state, a dog is much more likely to do something impulsive. This means those of you with reactive, stranger aggressive or habitual barkers will see an increased likelihood of this behaviour in that first minute or two of the walk. I have had two behaviour clients whose dogs have snapped or tried to bite a stranger in the first 20 seconds of a walk, after coming out of the house and not tried to do it any other times. I attribute this to the rush and higher state of arousal of bursting out of the house. Therefore, for some of you with dogs with behavioural issues, coming out of the house in a calm state is of even more importance.
-Now here comes the most important point of this entire blog. Tear up the A to B mentality and throw it away. Forget going on a set route. This is a human mindset of ticking boxes to get something done. This motion and vibe of moving forward and having to get somewhere is one of the biggest reason dogs pull. Effectively, the human has trained the dog to do this, by constantly wanting to move forward on a walk and going on similar routes. Instead of going out with the mindset to complete the walk, go out with the mindset to explore! Dogs primarily go out to sniff, not to cover miles. Dogs will be much more tired by walking two street blocks and sniffing 50 lampposts, than going 2 miles and sniffing much less. In fact, they could get home wired from all the pulling feeling frustrated, bored and unfulfilled.
-If you are going to explore then guess what. The usual park is actually pretty boring. The same goes if you only use your park for pelting round practicing high adrenaline behaviours and chasing a ball. Again, as above, running and covering distance does not tire a dog out. It makes them fitter and wired on adrenaline. What would tire you out more and help you fall asleep? An intense gym session or reading a book at home? It is exactly the same for dogs. I have had many clients who couldn't work out why their dog wouldn't sleep at bedtime or wake up regularly in the night "even though they had a 1 hour run at 9pm to tire them out". After my suggestion of a 20-minute sniffing walk round the block and some sniffer games at home, the dogs were sleeping through the night.
-So, what is an exploration walk? Simply put let your dog sniff everything it wants to sniff. This is the quickest way to tire your dog out on a walk. Let it look at everything it wants to look at. Dogs are nosey mammals, just like humans! They love to see what's going on. So, let them. Again, this will be a much more enjoyable walk for them and tire them out much more than marching around. If your neighbour comes out of their house and your dog wants to look over there, let them look. If somebody gets out of a car let them look. If a bird flies into the sky and your dog has done nothing more than gazed up at them, let them look. If you see another dog across the road and your dog isn't barking or reactive, let them look. Reward them for not reacting and then be on your way. Better still, break off your dog looking at something with a scatter game at your feet. This will create a healthy chain of your dog looking at things and then scavenging at your feet, which will reduce the likelihood of chasing behaviours. Teach them looking at things without interacting with them, is a valid behaviour. This will reduce frustration on the lead, engage their brain, foster low adrenaline behaviours and it takes the pressure off the walker to have to get something done or get somewhere or complete something.
-Every single thing on a walk is ready made enrichment for your dog. Think of the walk as one big enrichment session. In terms of priority, dogs go out number one to sniff, number two to look and number three, to cover distance in the majority of cases. Do on-lead street walks and don’t always go to the park. If you only go to the park, this can result in a dog that will see the street as a means to an end and will pull like a steam train just to get to the park. Over time this can build into an anxiety behaviour. Instead use all the skills in this article to make street walks a wonderful thing. I am a dog trainer and I have to say I absolutely love street walks and I love to see dogs enjoying them. Walking down the high Street, (if it is not too busy or scary for your dog) is also a wonderful way to provide enrichment on a walk. I absolutely love to see dogs sniff the different smells from the shops and then carry on walking with me. This is probably my favourite type of walk. I even had one behaviour client with a Spanish street dog who was experiencing rather upsetting extreme fool around, mouthing, humping and bucking whenever she left the house with the dog on the lead. It lasted the whole of the walk and the client came home with bruises up her arms. The client lived on the back of a High Street. We worked out that if we left the house and immediately walked the dog up the service delivery road behind the High Street and let him sniff all the interesting smells and see all the sites up there, he became calm enough to walk on a lead for the rest of the walk. In my time in rescue, I would often take the dogs I was walking to new places on site for a more interesting walk. One of my favourite Akita's loved nothing more than poking his head in the shed and laundry room for a good nose.
-What if you only have 40 minutes to walk your dog. Put your stopwatch on for 20 minutes and go at the dogs pace for 20 minutes. Then you know that you have about the same time to walk home. Only got 20 minutes then do the same, 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back.
-This doesn't mean abandon your running sessions or your park visits. It just means diversify into this type of walk some of the time. That said if you have a dog that is very aroused and pulling a lot on a walk or is reactive, then you might foster this style of walk for the foreseeable future until it learns new behaviours outside.
-As with puppies, be your dog's safe place. If your dog is worried about something do not pull them towards it. Instead offer gentle verbal reassurance and let the dog approach and retreat on their own, on a loose lead. If your dog is particularly worried i.e. startled and wanting to leave the area then go with them. Again, do not pull them towards the thing, telling them it is not scary. Once a satisfactory distance away, your dog can then look at the scary thing from that distance, whilst getting gentle verbal reassurance from you and some treats. At the right distance, opportunity for visual appraisal without any pressure can do the world of good. If something scary happens convince your dog it was a good thing. Gently say “surprises” and drop some treats. The dog will associate the endorphins from the food with the startle. Distance from the scary thing is good. The treats will help further. No need to take the dog right up to the scary thing and especially if it is not the dog's choice to do so.
-Do not get obsessed with obedience. Walking a dog should be a 50/50 experience between dog and owner. This means do not get too focussed on the dog walking along side you. A short lead wrapped round your hand will limit the dog’s choices, the dog will feel less safe and more frustrated which can lead to phobias and aggression. It removes the dogs flight option when scared, which means only the fight option is left. This will only be made even worse by using painful equipment such as choke chains, slip leads, shock collars and yanking the dog’s neck. Systematically yanking the dogs neck is not training. This is often how reactive behaviours start (or a trip to the vets with a skin or neck injury). If you're going to practice some loose lead walking training, pick moments when the dog is responding to you already so you are setting the dog up for success. If these moments are few and far between foster the exploration walk ethos and start with some foundation behaviours, such as rewarding your dog every time they look at you. After all, if your dog isn't even checking in with you how can you expect to get loose lead walking.
This brings us on to some outdoor staple training exercises which is to be continued in part 2, coming soon.